As an assistant on Tom Izzo's staff at Michigan State, Mark Montgomery reached three Final Fours in the past seven seasons. Northern Illinois wasn't one of the final four teams in the Mid-American Conference tournament a single time during that stretch.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that Montgomery wants to bring a Michigan State attitude to his new school now that he has taken over as Northern Illinois' coach.
"I think I can instill a little toughness," Montgomery says. "We have to be able to defend the basketball and rebound. Those are some of the things we did at Michigan State. We had a strong defensive mindset and rebounding mindset. It all goes back to toughness."
That toughness has been missing at NIU. The Huskies have lost at least 20 games in each of the past five seasons, including a 9-21 mark in 2010-11 that led to the departure of former coach Ricardo Patton. Northern Illinois has posted only two winning seasons since earning its last NCAA tournament bid in 1996.
Montgomery, 41, believes Northern Illinois isn't far from turning the corner.
"Talking to other coaches in the league, Northern Illinois has been talented enough to win the league or to play for the top of the league,'' Montgomery says. "We have to instill some belief."
What has held the Huskies back?
"[The coaches] said they're in every game and just have a tendency to make mistakes down the stretch or have a lack of defensive presence in the second half," Montgomery says.
Indeed, NIU ranked near the bottom of the MAC in many of the so-called "hustle" categories. The Huskies ranked 10th in the 12-team MAC in blocked shots, steals and turnover margin.
Montgomery plans to change that. He has instituted early-morning workouts designed to teach players the importance of discipline, work ethic and sacrifice.
Huskies players say they appreciate this boot-camp approach. Senior forward Tim Toler attended a basketball camp at Michigan State as a freshman in high school and remembered Montgomery. As soon as Montgomery was mentioned as a candidate for the Northern Illinois vacancy, Toler was rooting for him to get the job.
NOTE: Jim Boylen, who was at Utah from 2007-11, and Stan Joplin, at Toledo from 1996-2008, also are former Izzo assistants.
"He's bringing the mentality he had at Michigan State - 'Work hard even when it hurts,' " Toler says. "You have to push through adversity. He's preaching championships. Workouts are hard, but you're not going to get a championship by half-[speeding] it."
Montgomery isn't afraid to let his team know exactly what he wants, even joining them in a weightlifting session or a basketball drill. He believes that approach will help build team unity while also allowing the program to make the most of his youthful enthusiasm.
"The players like that I'm out there sweating with them," Montgomery says. "That's the good thing about being a young head coach. You can still get out there and do it. I stress energy and effort. It's going to come from every assistant and especially from the head coach.
"I have plenty of energy. I don't worry about being tired, and I don't want our guys to worry about that."
The sight of Montgomery working alongside his players in the weight room or on a practice court shouldn't come as a surprise. Montgomery played at Michigan State from 1988-92 and remains third on the school's career list in steals (168) and fifth in assists (561). He went on to play four seasons of pro basketball in Germany, Lithuania and Sweden.
Montgomery, a two-time Academic All-Big Ten selection, showed plenty of coaching potential throughout his playing career. His work in the film room and on the practice floor helped him know as much as possible about his teammates and his opponents.
"You knew he was going to be a great coach," says Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory, an assistant at Michigan State when Montgomery played for the Spartans. "He was a coach on the court. He knew where people were supposed to be and [knew] everything about our opponent. He was ahead of the game on watching film. Now everybody watches video. Early in the '90s, player-wise, it was a rarity."
Montgomery's background as a former Michigan State player and assistant give him ties to the Midwest that already have paid dividends on the recruiting trail. Montgomery has labeled NIU a sleeping giant, in part because of its proximity to Chicago, and he wasted no time capitalizing on that connection.
Help is needed
Northern Illinois has produced just two winning seasons since making its most recent NCAA tournament appearance, in 1996 under Brian Hammel. Here's a look at the Huskies' season-by-season record during that stretch; they were a member of the Midwestern Collegiate Conference (now called the Horizon) in 1996-97, then joined the Mid-American Conference the next season.
Since becoming NIU's coach in late March, Montgomery has signed 6-foot-6 swingman Andre Henley of Chicago De La Salle and 6-7 twin forwards Keith and Kevin Gray of Chicago Brooks College Prep Academy. Montgomery also utilized his Michigan background to bring in 6-2 guard Marquavis Ford of Saginaw (Mich.) High.
"I've already recruited these areas, and the Michigan State brand in the Midwest is probably one of the strongest," Montgomery says. "I think that helps me."
Although Montgomery is best-known for what he accomplished at Michigan State, he didn't begin his college coaching career in East Lansing. Montgomery first spent four years on Jay Smith's staff at Central Michigan, giving him the MAC background that should benefit him at Northern Illinois.
Central Michigan went a combined 21-60 in Montgomery's first three years before improving in 2000-01 to 20-8, which marked the Chippewas' first winning season since 1988. Montgomery went from there to Michigan State, which reached the Final Four three times while Montgomery was an assistant (2005, '09 and '10).)
"Mark has an incredible amount of experience, and he has coached and recruited many NBA players," Izzo said in a statement after NIU hired Montgomery. "As important as that, Mark has demonstrated through three trips to the Final Four that he also is a great X's and O's coach."
Montgomery believes his experience makes him an ideal fit at Northern Illinois. His stint at Central Michigan showed him how soon a MAC program can make a dramatic move up the league standings. His decade working for Izzo helped him realize just what it takes to take that leap.
He hopes to turn Northern Illinois into a MAC contender by relying on the same blue-collar approach that helped make his alma mater one of the nation's most respected programs.
"It's the Michigan State blueprint," Montgomery says. "That's what I'm bringing here."
The Huskies may get outplayed. Montgomery just wants to make sure they never get outworked.